In the three years since they won Super Bowl XXVI, the Washington Redskins have mutated into the Deadskins. Things started going wrong after Joe Gibbs quit as coach, following the 1992 season. His successor, Richie Petitbon, took Gibbs's 9-7 team and created a 4-12 monstrosity. Exit Petitbon and enter Norv Turner, the creative force behind the Dallas Cowboy offense for three years and two Super Bowl wins, who lopped almost half of last year's players from the roster, including all three quarterbacks.
For Sunday's home opener with the Seattle Seahawks, Turner alternated San Diego Charger refugee John Friesz with $19.2 million rookie Heath Shuler. The former was inept (17 for 32,210 yards and two interceptions), the latter inert (3 for 8,14 yards). The Seahawks won in a 28-7 rout for coach Tom Flores's 100th victory as running back Chris Warren rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
If Sunday was any indication, Turner could have a long wait for his first Redskin win. On Washington's opening drive Friesz found wideout Desmond Howard on a 27-yard slant-and-go for a short-lived 7-0 lead, but of the Skins' 11 subsequent possessions, seven ended with punts, two with interceptions, one with a missed field goal and one because the first half ended.
In rebuilding the Redskins, Turner surprised a lot of people by keeping Howard, the only wide receiver left from last year's team. Ever since Washington dratted Howard fourth overall in 1992, the Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan has been as invisible as he was after his catch against the Seahawks on Sunday. That TD reception was the first of his career, but other than that, Friesz and then Shuler failed to connect with Howard.
The Skins picked Howard because he was supposedly a playmaker with the ability to turn a quick hitch into a quick six. As a rookie stuck behind the Posse—veterans Art Monk, Ricky Sanders and Gary Clark—Howard played Possum and didn't make a reception until Week 11. He snared just three passes for 20 yards before he separated a shoulder in the season finale. Last season he was slowed by a groin injury for most of training camp, and by the time he was healthy again, Monk, Sanders and free-agent signee Tim McGee were entrenched in front of him.
Howard's end nearly came last November in Buffalo. With Washington behind but driving for a score, he ran the wrong route in the end zone, and a Bill defender picked off Mark Rypien's pass. Howard didn't start again for five games. Coaches questioned his dedication and grumbled that he coasted in practice.
Now Rypien and the Posse are gone, and Howard has another chance under a staff that in addition to Turner includes wide-receivers coach Terry Robiskie and quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron, Howard's onetime position coach at Michigan. Not one is older than 42. Says Howard, "There's more camaraderie between players and coaches. I don't know how old most of last year's coaches were. A century? A century and a half?"
Howard may be happier playing for youthful coaches, but on Sunday he was upstaged by one of the game's senior citizens: 12-year veteran Henry Ellard, a free-agent acquisition, who led the Redskins with seven catches, including the 600th of his career. Having outlasted the Posse, Howard may now have to prove himself against another old pro. "The jury's still out on Desmond," cracks Cameron. "I had him in college, and he won the Heisman. It's Robiskie's job to get him to the Pro Bowl."